2NE1 – Paving the way for the modern Korean girl

By Daniele Pestilli on January 3, 2012
Members of 2NE1 posing - photo credits: TarnaraStory, under the Creative Commons license

Nan bappa, very bappa
Nan bappa, damn bappa
Nan bappa, neomu bappa
Nan bappa, let me go!

(I'm busy, very busy
I'm busy, damn busy
I'm busy, too busy
I'm busy, let me go)

These are the opening words to “I'm Busy”, a hip-hop/dance song characterized by mixed Korean and American lyrics, a Western beat and a distinctly Korean attitude.

This song, along with many others being released by the girl-group 2NE1, encapsulates a unique moment in Korean history and female identity. They're pretty, they're bilingual, they're rich and they don't need a man to rely on.

Tangled in a web of modern values and an extraordinarily conformist Confucian past, the current generation of South Koreans are the first in their country's long history to see an increasingly emancipated woman who is free to be selfish, choose her job and her sexual partners.

Between standard clubs, night clubs (where women rotate between tables of men who pay for their drinks), “hunting” clubs, “sogetting” (a form of dating where friends serve as matchmakers by setting up blind dates), single bars and so on, Korean girls are no longer confined to an ancient social order. They can have their pick from the cream of the crop. Staying in a steady relationship is no longer the fad. Listen to “Go Away”, a song that tells a man to go away after a break-up, or “I Don't Care” where a fed up girl tells her ex-boyfriend to mind his business and not come running back chasing her, to understand Korean women's newfound independence. 2NE1's music is symptomatic of these values, and as such, it praises and extols their presence.

Only about thirty years ago, it was not uncommon for men to make nasty remarks to a woman who was bold enough to drive a car through the streets of Seoul. In just a short time, the country has virtually changed from night to day. Although this is a relatively new phenomenon for Korea, it is not so for East Asia. In fact, as if to foreshadow the rupture between old and new, the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 defined the start of a phenomenon which was to change Japan forever: namely, the emergence of a social construct called the modern girl (modan gāru).

The Japanese were already being exposed to new freedoms and Western values by 1868, or the beginning of the Meiji epoch. By that time the population at large came to face a set of concerns considerably different from those of earlier periods. The earthquake that shook Tokyo, as well as a slew of other national emergencies such as the Sino-Japanese War and World War II forced women to work outside the household, to take proactive initiative, organize, and cooperate in a way that set them on par with men – something unprecedented in the strict hierarchy of Japanese society. The modern girl was therefore a woman who sought emancipation from the oppression of tradition and who embraced Western values of gender equality. Korea has followed these footsteps.

Girl group 2NE1 dressed in black
Girl group 2NE1 all dressed in black for their first mini album.

Paradoxically, female emancipation is directly related to her instrumentalization, be it as a worker, be it as a purely physical object of desire, which results in a new consciousness of her sexuality. The skin-tight costumes, vibrant hair colors and risqué positions that can be seen in music videos such as 2NE1's “I am the best” have toppled the old Korean ideal of a subdued, virginal girl into a seductive temptress who is “feelin’ naughty [and] don’t need no man to party”.

Whereas the Japanese modern girl was said to be someone more often found in advertisements for cosmetics and fashion than in real life, South Korean women have made it a commonplace reality. South Koreans are taught to aim for perfection since childhood. As a result of this frantic desire to succeed, beat their peers and be perfect in one of the world’s most homogeneous and competitive societies, the attitude, sex appeal and emancipation of Korean girl groups like 2NE1 are eagerly embraced and emulated.

Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of plastic surgery, so much so that an eye job is hardly considered surgery nowadays, according to a report by the New York Times. This phenomenon has much to do with the internet and TV. Girl and boy groups such as 2NE1 and Big Bang are constantly being closely analyzed by fans and netizens who notice their every (im)perfection. Gossip is created around any minor mistake on behalf of the idol members. Fans try to copy those perfections, often driving themselves or the stars to suicide over trifling details.

It is also significant that many of 2NE1’s hits include words or sentences in American English. It is a status symbol that, until recently, was sure to land you a job in the bigger companies. In other words, their bilingualism is not only fashionable in a culture that values English education; it also underlines the fact that they have the smarts and education to provide for themselves.

How long will this outburst of freedom from repressed passions last?

In Japan, the end of the Great Depression sparked the return of the conservative 19th century ideal of “good wife, wise mother.” In Korea, it will be interesting to see if today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s conservatives. Confucianism is deeply rooted in the ideology of East Asian nations and a return to more somber attitudes is a possibility. Furthermore, there are still many social issues that South Korea must face which these utopian idol groups tend to hide. For instance, according to a recent report by Yonhap News, the ratio of income paid to female workers is the lowest among OECD countries, and the gap between the haves and have-nots seems to be widening. For now though, K-pop idol groups such as 2NE1 are the exemplary femmes fatales that are shaping and pioneering this fascinating moment in Korean history.